Since 1970, consumers in the U.S. have made a big shift in their meat-eating habits in favor of poultry — chicken, to be specific. Chicken is cheap, thanks to a highly efficient industry that relies on quick-growing breeds, inexpensive feed and tight quarters.
What Is Poultry Farming?
The term “poultry farming” is used to describe the production of various birds for meat, from the hatching of chicks to their slaughter.
What Are the Four Types of Poultry?
There are four different types of birds that are typically classified as poultry, though some are more commonly farmed than others.
Chickens are the birds most commonly associated with poultry farming. This is due to the sheer number of chickens raised globally for consumption. Chickens make up 94 percent of the world’s farmed poultry. There are two different classifications of chicken raised in the poultry farming industry: broiler chickens and laying hens.
These chickens are raised solely to be slaughtered and eaten. Some of the most popular breeds of broiler chickens grow so quickly that they reach an average slaughter weight of 6.64 pounds in just a matter of weeks; this number continues to grow almost every year. During the 1950s, chickens were slaughtered about a week later and weighed on average only 2.2 pounds. This vast disparity in growth is due to breeding that selects for growth rate and size at the expense of health and welfare.
Laying hens are those raised to produce eggs. These hens often spend their lives in cages barely larger than they are. In contrast to the approximately 40-day lifespan of broiler chickens, laying hens are given a life of up to 20 months, and can lay over 300 eggs per year. This is despite their ability to live much longer productive lives of roughly four years if left to lay at a slower, more natural rate.
Although turkey production is much smaller than chicken production, 217 million turkeys were raised in 2021 in the United States, the world’s largest turkey producer. Modern birds grow astonishingly quickly and can reach a weight of over 44 pounds by their slaughter, typically at between 9 and 24 weeks of age. Like chickens, turkeys are intelligent animals that are capable of forming tight bonds with members of their flock and with other animals, including humans. When a turkey goes missing from the flock the other members of the group have been known to make sounds of distress until the lost bird has been found.
Ducks and Geese
Ducks and geese are both waterfowl: they are capable swimmers and have webbed feet. Though they are often mistaken for each other, the key difference is that ducks have fewer bones in their necks than geese, meaning they tend to have shorter necks.
Ducks are considered an “easy” animal to raise due to their docile nature. This, coupled with the fact that duck eggs and meat are relatively expensive to purchase at grocery stores, means that these birds are an ideal candidate for poultry farming operations to raise if they are willing to sacrifice the animals’ welfare. One of the most profitable ways to raise a duck is to keep him in a small pen that barely allows for movement and force-feed him until his liver is engorged. This allows for the liver to be marketed as foie gras and sold as a delicacy for upward of $50 a pound.
Like ducks, geese are often raised for foie gras. This process often results in terrible physical consequences for the birds including lacerated tracheas from having tubes shoved down their throats for force-feeding. The species of goose most frequently used for foie gras is the Toulouse goose, known for its docility and trusting personality. When not confined to poultry farming operations, geese will mate for life and be very protective parents and partners.
Guinea Fowl and Squabs
Guinea fowl and squabs are less frequently farmed than even ducks and geese.
Guinea fowl popularity has been increasing in some parts of the world. The Ministry of Agriculture in Botswana encouraged an increase in guinea fowl rearing among young farmers because the birds are easier to raise than chickens and other species common in the poultry farming industry. Guinea fowl are also frequently used as alert animals, as they are known to alarm at the smallest irregularities.
Squabs are baby pigeons. In the U.S., they are principally raised in California and South Carolina. Squabs weigh about 1 pound at slaughter, which is typically at or before 4 weeks of age. If left to live out their lives naturally, pigeons live to be around 6 years old. Pigeons are known to be extraordinarily intelligent and have been found to be as capable at some mathematical tasks as monkeys.
What Is the World Chicken Population?
The most recent full-year data from 2020 indicates that there are about 33 billion chickens in the world and about 518 million in the United States. These numbers are almost entirely composed of chickens living at production facilities.
How Many Poultry Farms Are There in the U.S.?
Most available statistics on poultry production focus on the pounds of meat as opposed to individual live birds, which is reflective of the industry’s priorities. The U.S. is the world’s largest poultry producer, accounting for 17 percent of global output, followed by China and Brazil. Americans consume more chicken per capita than any other individual nation.
Every five years, the USDA publishes a Census of Agriculture and while the 2022 report is due to be released in 2024, the 2017 report showed that there were 164,099 farms that sold poultry and eggs. Although most of these farms are small, the majority of production takes place on larger farms. There are around 25,000 family poultry farms that contract with approximately 30 federally-inspected large-scale production companies that raise, process and market chickens. These farms produce roughly 95 percent of U.S. chickens. These numbers do not account for facilities that are not federally inspected.
What Are Poultry Raised For?
Poultry are typically raised for either meat or eggs, and different breeds have been selectively bred for each purpose. The function a bird has been bred for will determine their future, including their diet, housing and even health and longevity.
So far in 2022, 20 million metric tons of ready to cook chicken has been produced in the U.S. Chicken is by far the most popular and most mass-produced poultry, followed by turkey. In 2021, 5.6 billion pounds of ready to cook turkey were sold. In the U.S., other types of birds, like ducks and geese, are farmed and produced on a much smaller scale.
In 2021, the U.S. produced over 100 billion eggs; most of this production is concentrated in the Midwest. The most recent statistic shows that 9 billion eggs were produced just in August of this year. The vast majority of eggs produced in the U.S. will be sold in stores for consumption, while the rest will be fertilized and hatched to produce more chickens.
There is also a small proportion of poultry in the U.S. that is farmed to produce foie gras. Foie gras refers specifically to the bird’s liver, which is purposely afflicted with hepatic steatosis, also known as fatty liver disease, and then sold as a delicacy. In order to obtain such a fatty liver, birds are prevented from exercising and denied adequate nutrition, instead being force-fed through a tube. France is the leader in this industry, but foie gras is still produced and sold in the U.S. and several other countries. In general, both geese and ducks are used for foie gras, but U.S. production only uses ducks.
What Are the Techniques of Poultry Farming?
Poultry farming techniques — whether for eggs or meat — are fraught with cruelty and suffering.
The methods by which vast numbers of eggs are produced every year entail serious suffering for millions of laying hens.
Because they will not be able to produce eggs, male chicks are not needed by the industry. This results in the slaughter of 300 million baby chicks every year in the U.S. alone, and more than 6 billion worldwide. These chicks are most commonly either gassed or macerated, meaning crushed. They are not raised and used for meat because their small adult size would not be profitable enough to offset the cost of feeding them into adulthood. Some progress on chick culling is being made, however, with France and Germany having recently introduced bans, and sex-selection technology offering the potential to lessen this source of suffering.
Within the first few days of life female chicks have their beaks trimmed. This process involves the removal of the tip of the beak to prevent the birds from pecking at each other, behavior caused by the cramped conditions in which they are confined. However, the procedure can cause both acute and chronic pain and also has lasting impacts on the birds’ ability to behave naturally.
Laying hens are overwhelmingly housed in cages around the world. On average each hen has less space than a sheet of paper in which to move around, preventing them from even spreading their wings. This lack of space makes a number of natural behaviors impossible, including nesting, perching and dustbathing.
Two of the dominant forms of suffering experienced by broiler chickens are an abnormally fast growth rate and an inhumane slaughter process that leaves some chickens fully conscious at the time of their death.
Broiler chickens grow at an astonishing 2 ounces or more a day in order to reach their slaughter weight of 6.2 pounds in just a matter of weeks. This excessive growth leads to painful consequences for the birds who often are not able to stand or walk normally as their legs struggle to support their ballooning size. The quick rate of growth also contributes to organ problems due to the extra toll being placed on the young chickens’ hearts and lungs.
The most common method of slaughter for broiler chickens in the U.S. is live shackle slaughter. This method involves hanging chickens upside down in shackles on a mechanized slaughter line running at speeds of up to 175 birds per minute. This leads to many animals being incorrectly hung and consequently having their limbs mangled or losing them altogether. The disassembly line then continues to an electrified water bath that is intended to stun the birds. Yet, many birds are ineffectively stunned or miss the bath completely, meaning that they are fully conscious when their throats are sliced open, surrounded by the frightened sounds of their flock.
Hatcheries are where most chickens begin their lives. Eggs are taken from the mother birds and placed into sterile, indoor incubators equipped with heaters that poorly mimic a mother’s warmth.
Why Is Poultry Farming Bad?
Poultry farms not only result in negative outcomes for the birds themselves, but also for the employees who work with them as well as the environment.
Beak trimming entails the removal of the tip of the beak within the first few days of a chick’s life. It is common practice for laying hens. The procedure impacts the bird’s ability to behave naturally and can also cause lifelong pain.
Antibiotics are used to treat and prevent bacterial infections in farm animals. However, their overuse in the poultry industry has contributed to antibiotic resistance, which the World Health Organization has characterized as one of the biggest threats to public health.
The use of growth hormones in U.S. poultry farming is illegal. Instead, birds have undergone selective breeding to achieve their massive growth rates.
Farmed chickens are kept in very small areas with thousands of other birds. Coupled with our increasing tendency to ship birds and their products across borders, this increases the risk of disease spread. The conditions in which animals are kept on poultry farming operations provide the ideal place for diseases to flourish and pandemics to start.
Poultry production pollutes air, land and water. The annual consumption of chicken in the U.S. is responsible for 129 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, which is equivalent to 12 million cars.
Chicken farmers have a difficult job that can have negative health impacts. The high levels of ammonia in the chicken barns can cause harm to workers’ respiratory health. Workers also run the risk of being exposed to any diseases that the birds may have. Working on a slaughter line can also cause high levels of mental anguish due to the nature of the job.
The overcrowded sheds common in the poultry industry cause high levels of stress in birds and can contribute to trampling and birds pecking at each other. In order to curb this behavior, beak trimming, equally painful, has become commonplace for laying hens.
Laying hens are commonly kept in battery cages with an area so small that it prevents the birds from even spreading their wings.
The genetic manipulation of broiler chickens has led to many being unable to stand or walk normally because their legs are unable to support their large bodies. This leads to many birds with leg deformities, such as having their legs splayed to the sides. The fast growth can also cause heart failure.
Broiler chickens kept for breeding purposes are commonly fed only every other day, or fed only a quarter of the food that it would take to satisfy their hunger. They have been bred to consume large amounts of food to support their swift growth, but the breeding birds must be kept leaner than birds meant for slaughter, to avoid the collapses, organ failure and infertility experienced by the birds intended for human consumption.
Laying hens are biologically inclined to lay eggs more frequently during the longer days of the spring and early summer, to ensure that chicks are raised during the warmest months of the year. However, through light manipulation, poultry farming operations are able to capitalize on this trait and create lighting circumstances that induce the hens to lay year-round at maximum capacity. This takes a toll on the hen’s body, which breaks down after two years or less when she is no longer able to keep up with the farmer’s demands and is sent to slaughter.
E. coli and Salmonella
E. coli and salmonella are two of a few bacteria that cause the highest number of illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths in the U.S. E. coli can be transmitted through contaminated meat, mostly undercooked beef and unpasteurized milk, but occasionally produce as well. The risk of salmonella poisoning is highest from poultry and eggs specifically, especially when these items are undercooked. Both bacteria live in the intestines of humans and animals and are transmitted through meat consumption as well as touching infected animals or their feces, or sharing their environment. Symptoms of both E. coli and salmonella poisoning include vomiting and diarrhea, but salmonella may cause a fever as well.
Commonly called bird flu, avian influenza infects poultry, and because it is highly pathogenic it spreads quickly and easily in the crowded and unhygienic living conditions inside factory farms. It is common for birds to die from this virus and they are sometimes culled proactively. Avian flu has run rampant in 2022, with over 50 million birds affected, both in commercial and backyard flocks.
Though it is rare, avian flu can also be transmitted to humans. Infected birds shed the virus through saliva, mucus or feces and humans can be infected if the virus gets into their eyes, nose, mouth or is inhaled. Because viruses can mutate, it is extremely important to continue monitoring avian flu outbreaks in the interest of public health.
What Are the Environmental Impacts of Poultry Farming?
We most often hear about the environmental impacts of farming cattle, but farming poultry takes a huge negative toll on the earth as well. A single 5-ounce chicken breast is the result of 2 pounds of CO2 emissions, 9 square feet of habitat loss, 83 gallons of water, and over half a pound of manure. Consumption is continuing to increase as people substitute poultry for red meat in their diets.
Furthermore, the amount of waste produced by poultry farming is astronomical. Between fecal waste, feathers, bedding and even dead birds, the amount is too much for landfills or for use as compost. Chicken manure can cause runoff into both the soil and natural water sources, like lakes and rivers. This process can not only kill fish and other wildlife, but can also impact humans’ drinking water. Poultry farming operations also produce a high amount of ammonia and nitrogen oxide, which pollute the air.
How To Stop Poultry Farming Cruelty
Cruelty is an inherent feature of the factory farm poultry industry. Purchasing plant-based chicken alternatives is one way to avoid supporting industrial animal agriculture, and another option is to connect with an organization committed to reducing or ending chicken suffering, like Mercy For Animals, The Humane League, and the Humane Society of the United States.
The Future of Poultry Farming
As consumers become more aware of the damaging climate impact of beef and dairy products, there is a risk that more people will simply swap out beef and eat more poultry. While this would result in lower climate emissions — though not as low as beans, peas and lentils — it would be a disaster for animal welfare. Out of all forms of animal farming, poultry production is one of the worst for animal welfare.
What You Can Do
One of the primary drivers of intensive factory farming is the demand for cheap poultry meat and eggs. Being more mindful of your consumption habits is an easy way to make a difference. Consider shifting to a plant-rich diet to reduce animal suffering, labor abuses and environmental pollution